ATLANTIC CITY — The iconic lyric — “Meet me tonight in Atlantic City” — played over and over as usual out of Boardwalk speakers Monday, but on this day, it sounded like a cruel joke on this battered seaside town as its nine casinos prepared to shut their doors by 8 p.m. — indefinitely.
The action brought both relief and fear as casino workers, cabdrivers, bartenders, junket tour managers, beer festival organizers, valets, even the rolling-chair operators who have roamed the Boardwalk for a century contemplated a town without its economic engine.
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“I’m upset about it,” said one table-game supervisor at Resorts shortly after word of the shutdown began to trickle into the casino and where the front desk had stopped checking in people. “Who’s going to pay my bills?"
Ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy as part of a vast curtailing of businesses to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the closures mark the fifth time in the 42-year history of legalized gambling in Atlantic City that the casinos have been shuttered.
Previously, the casinos shut down for five days during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for three days as Hurricane Irene approached in 2011, during Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and for a state government shutdown in 2006 that closed the casinos for three days, causing a loss of about $55 million.
But this was different.
“This is like a hurricane hitting the entire country,” said jitney driver Frank Becktel. “But the damage isn’t structural at this point, it’s economic.”
Brinks trucks made their rounds outside casinos, and security dogs were roaming lobbies, as the casinos emptied out, save for the diehards sticking around for their final slot machine tries.
Some casinos, like Resorts and Hard Rock, had closed their doors by early evening. “Everyone’s panicking,” said Hoang Nguyen, a water at Margaritaville, as he walked out of Resorts onto the Boardwalk around 6 p.m.
Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, which represents 10,000 casino and hospitality workers in South Jersey and Pennsylvania, said the union was reaching out to employers about pay during closure to ensure that “a short-term health crisis does not lead to a longer-term economic crisis for working people.”
Their health care will be covered until June 30, he said. Casinos were offering two weeks pay.
Inside casinos and on the Boardwalk, workers expressed nervousness as they continued to report to work, park cars, serve drinks, and oversee hands of blackjack.
“It’s going to really hurt,” said rolling-chair operator John Smith, adding hopefully, “at least for a couple weeks now.”
Some said they were happy to be able to leave an environment that was drawing customers from New York and Pennsylvania and that was hard to keep safe even with precautions.
Erin Ruiz, a cocktail server at Resorts, said she was relieved to hear of the shutdown and had been preparing for herself and her two children.
“I’m happy everything is closing down," she said. "We’re going to be more safe.”
Atlantic City’s nine casinos —Tropicana, Caesars, Bally’s, Resorts, Hard Rock, Ocean, Borgata, Harrah’s, and Golden Nugget — employed 26,761 people in December, according to data from the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.
The move followed days of speculation and hesitation by Murphy, who said over the weekend that officials were operating on the idea that the large casino floors could accommodate social distancing with the proper precautions.
Some casinos, like Bally’s, removed chairs from blackjack tables. But at Caesars on Sunday, gamblers were shoulder to shoulder around craps tables, and cocktail servers carried trays of drinks around the casino floors.
As they waited for Murphy, or the casinos, to act, workers were angry. “We are not six feet from customers,” tweeted one Caesars employee. “Why is our health unimportant?”
At Borgata, employees were notified in writing prior to the shutdown that three table game employees were reported ill with coronavirus-like symptoms, though none had tested positive, said spokesperson Liza Constandino. The casino said it would implement “deep cleaning and sanitation process in the pits," a move that was greeted with some eye rolling on social media and was quickly made moot by the ordered closures.
Visitors to the casinos, who contributed to a busy pre-St. Patrick’s Day weekend, were caught by surprise Monday as they quickly made plans to leave. One couple from Oregon said they’d been encouraged by casino staff on Sunday that the casinos would not close.
“When we checked in, they said we’d probably never close the casinos, because people wanted to gamble no matter what,” said Eleanor Whissen.
Others milked the final hours. Justin Vacula, a travel podcaster for the “Hurdy Gurdy Travel Podcast" who was staying at Harrah’s in Atlantic City, said the casino asked people to leave at 4 p.m. He described the mood as “dejected.”
“Patrons are eager, however, playing before the impending closure,” he said.
He said the poker room was going strong until 2 a.m. and he planned to return Monday afternoon for some final hands, “as this will likely be the last chance for March.”
“We’ll also see what online poker has in store,” he said, via Twitter message.
Regina Smith, retired from Temple University’s billing department, sat in the Hard Rock Cafe eating lunch with her husband, Andrew, a seasonal Philadelphia Parks and Recreation employee. They had arrived Sunday and had planned to stay a few days in Atlantic City, but would now be headed back to North Philadelphia by train.
“It’s for everybody’s precaution,” Smith said. “I brought my own cleaning stuff.”
At least, she said, she had won $500.